By Ann Rockley, Charles Cooper and Scott Abel

The following is an excerpt from Intelligent Content: A Primer, the sixth book in The Content Wrangler Content Strategy Series of books from XML Press (2015).

Adopting intelligent content—Practical advice

In this chapter, we provide tips and first steps to help kickstart an intelligent content project.

Let’s examine a few recommended first steps. Consider these before adopting intelligent content.

Understand the impact of corporate culture when adopting intelligent content

Adopting intelligent content requires technological change, but these changes are smaller and easier to overcome than cultural changes. As Douglas Adams said in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy [Adams, 1979], “to summarize the summary of the summary, ‘people are a problem.’”

The typical response to change is to push back, and if we’re trying to change the way we’ve always done things, we should expect push-back. After all, change can be hard, and it’s often uncomfortable. It can even be scary. It breaks our patterns. It erodes our confidence. It makes us feel out of control. But, despite the challenges, change is necessary to make progress.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Even if we realize that the way we work is slow and inefficient, we may not want to change. Even when the work we do is frustrating, we still find ways to rationalize why we should keep working the way we always have. Some behavioral scientists say that we resist change because we are more comfortable with what we know and understand. People who feel this way believe it’s better to stick with the devil they know than to make uncomfortable changes.

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To succeed, we must educate our stakeholders about the need for intelligent content. And to explain the benefits, we have to first understand the pain. The desire for change is more-often-than-not dependent on pain. According to Pip Coburn, “Users will change their habits when the pain of their current situation is greater than their perceived pain of adopting a possible solution.”

The best way to increase the probability of success is to focus on what executive coach and business strategy consultant Mario Raia refers to as the four Cs:

  • Clarity: We have a strategy, goals, and a plan. And we have a process to help us achieve our goals.
  • Confidence: We trust our strategy, plan, process, and people.
  • Competency: We have the expertise to execute our plan.
  • Collection of past experiences: We have assessed past experiences, looking for any that might lead us to believe we won’t be successful. If so, we have addressed them.

Practical advice: Find out what’s causing the team pain today. Make sure the proposed changes will alleviate as much pain as possible. Educate everyone. Evangelize often. Help others see the potential benefits. And, always be honest and forthright about the need for change and its impact on the organization.

Recommended reading: The 5 Characteristics of Intelligent Content

Take advantage of existing processes and procedures when adopting intelligent content

Take advantage of existing processes, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and methods of work. SOPs and existing business processes determine what happens when, where, under what circumstance, and by whom. Examine existing SOPs and extract the salient points. If official SOPs don’t exist, find out how things work by examining formal and informal processes. Look for things that we must do (for regulatory or valid business reasons) and get rid of those things that aren’t essential.

Ensure our new way of working supports the things we need to do, and enables us to eliminate unnecessary processes, halt production of unneeded deliverables, and reduce unreasonable delays.

Practical advice: Build on existing processes, modify these processes to reflect the new way of working. This will make it easier for everyone to transition.

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Look for change champions before adopting intelligent content

Change champions help their organizations lead transformation. They must see the vision, understand the goal, and advocate for change. Transformative changes are often dramatic and profound innovations that take an organization in a new business direction, a direction that often bears little or no resemblance to the past way of working.

Transformative changes take an organization in a new direction, one that often bears little resemblance to the past.

The first and most obvious change champions are leaders who are visible, strong, and active members of our organization. Champions lend support, provide guidance, and communicate the importance of the change to others. They are often called upon to evangelize the strategy, publicize milestones and achievements, and unify lower level and department management. Champions are especially useful in helping leaders whose departments are interdependent understand that although the changes may be uncomfortable, they are necessary for the organization to achieve its broader goals.

Selecting a champion

To select a champion, look for someone whose organization would benefit from faster delivery of more accurate content. Make sure the potential champion is influential, willing to commit, and high enough on the corporate ladder for their support to carry weight.

If we encounter difficulties recruiting a particularly influential champion, we can try talking to someone who works for our candidate. Explain the benefits of intelligent content and why it would matter to the champion being targeted. Then work together to develop an approach that will appeal to the target champion.

Practical advice: Find out who will benefit from faster delivery of more accurate content. Approach them. Make sure they are influential, willing to commit, and high enough on the corporate ladder (the higher, the better) for their support to matter to others.

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Ask the right questions when adopting intelligent content

Implementing an intelligent content strategy and realizing the benefits does not happen overnight. The importance of planning transformative projects ahead of time can’t be overstated.

Implementing intelligent content is significant and consequential. There are moving parts, dependencies, people, culture, language, and technology involved. While it would be nice to put everything on hold while we implement, intelligent content projects often must be implemented in parallel with other projects. To transform our organization, we have to manage our current workload, while designing a new-and-improved process for the future.

To determine what needs to change, it helps if we first examine how we work today. The first step is to ask questions, a lot of them.

Questions to ask and answer

How do we create content? Who creates it? Who helps? Why do they create it? For whom? Who is collaborating? On what? Who is sharing content? Who could – or should – be sharing content, but isn’t? How can we get them involved? Who is in charge of that department? Are we required to produce content for regulatory reasons? Are we required to track metrics, provide an audit trail, or prove we follow our own policies and procedures?

What type of information are we creating? In what languages? In which formats? For what devices? Do we create interactive content? Audio? Video? Multimedia? Do we use any content standards, and if so, are those standards shared across the organization? Does everyone follow the rules? What happens if they don’t?

Analysis is time well spent. Without it, our chances of success are greatly diminished.

The analysis phase of an intelligent content project is where we start to see the complexity, understand the dependencies, and get a good idea of where the pain points are. A proper analysis will help us reimagine our processes in the future. Understanding what we do today – and how we do it – will help us uncover the hidden productivity-draining tasks that should be streamlined, automated, or eliminated. Analysis is time well-spent. Without it, our chances of success are greatly diminished.

Practical advice: Talk to everyone involved in content development. Ask them what works and what doesn’t. Identify the pain points. Assure everyone that it is important to identify problems so that they can be reduced or eliminated.

Need help creating a content strategy? Get help from the experts.

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Promote the possibilities adopting intelligent content may provide (but don’t over promise)

Adopting intelligent content is a cultural change. It relies on people, processes, and the power of technology to deliver maximum value. Like any technological project, it’s best implemented in a phased manner.

To ensure success, start by identifying short-term goals and work toward achieving them. Resist adding-in more features until after the initial roll-out. Make sure team members understand the importance of getting the basic mechanics working first. Even if a request is simple to fulfill, it can derail the project. Stick to the plan. Nice-to-have is not a necessity. Projects that are controlled and follow a predetermined strategy and plan of attack are far more likely to succeed than projects that get sidetracked by requests for “just one more little feature.”

Projects that follow a predetermined strategy are more likely to succeed.

That said, don’t discourage team members from suggesting new features and capabilities. Encourage them, but within the confines of existing priorities and the project plan. Don’t promise people anything that can’t be delivered within a reasonable timeframe.

Practical advice: Educate everyone to the possibilities, but support them with a business case that demonstrates return on investment. Be conservative. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver.

Select the right first intelligent content project

Selecting the right first project to begin an intelligent content adventure is extremely important. Picking the wrong project can lead to failure. Don’t pick a mission-critical project with a very short deadline; developing an effective intelligent content strategy takes time to do properly. Mistakes will be made (that’s guaranteed) and we need time to learn from them. The pressure to perform too quickly may also sabotage the development team’s desire to do it right.To have the best chance for success, pick a project that is certain to show

To have the best chance for success, pick a project that is certain to show return on investment. The best candidates are projects involving content that already exists, but will require a major revision to meet current needs. The changes required to adopt an intelligent content strategy will be less taxing if the content being structured needs to be updated anyway. And legacy content gives content analysts and information architects real content work with from the beginning.

Practical advice: Start with a project that is not mission critical, but which is large enough to test the design and vision. Avoid projects with significant amounts of new content; stick with projects that mostly have legacy content.

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Think big, but act small when adopting intelligent content

Thinking big means considering the larger needs of the organization so the solution will meet future needs. Acting small means starting with one area, or one project, and then using the smaller project success to fuel future efforts and to gain experience. Without the knowledge gained from the smaller initiative, we might implement a solution that is too narrow, a mistake that can prove costly later.

Practical advice: Start with a small, manageable project, but talk to anyone who might benefit from intelligent content. That will help ensure that when the time comes to take on a larger project, there will be fewer surprises, and the scope will be better understood. Be agile. Iterate to grow. Don’t try to tackle too much with the first project.

Plan ahead–and, plan for changes in your plan

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Winston Churchill was reputed to have said, “planning is invaluable, but plans are useless.” What he meant was that examining facts, understanding the situation, and evaluating the possibilities are the keys to preparation. However, schedules slip, people leave, new products are created or are moved up in the release schedule. Companies are bought or sold, staff is cut, and new team members are hired. Target markets shift. Nothing is set in stone.

As Louis Pasteur said, “chance favors the prepared mind.” Proper early planning can help us manage changes, even unlikely ones.

Practical advice: Think through possible problems. Identify ways to solve them. Enlist the help of the project planning team early in the process. Their experience will prove invaluable.

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When adopting intelligent content, communication is key to success

Moving to intelligent content is a significant change that we must discuss and explain in detail. We can’t just unveil it at the last minute.

It should go without saying that the project team needs to be in the loop – they are the loop, after all. But they’re not the only people we need to communicate with. We need to keep other interested parties informed. Communication is the key success.

Who do we need to communicate with?

It depends on our organization, but typically we need to be talking with anyone who has expressed an interest in improving content quality, accuracy, usability, consistency, or timeliness. These people might not be directly related to our project, but keeping them informed is a great way to build interest in the project.

Create a communication plan designed to get everyone on the same page. Communicate the vision, milestones, expectations, successes, set-backs, and lessons learned regularly. Engage a team member to act as communication manager for the project.

Practical advice: Communicate frequently. Communicate reasons for change, adjustments to the plan, and project updates. Communicate successes and setbacks. Never hide problems. Be open and honest, but have a plan of action. Get change management personnel involved early.

To read more from Intelligent Content: A Primer, check it out on the XML Press website or buy the book now on the Amazon, AppleBarnes & Noble or the O’Reilly Media website.